At Benito Juarez Market in Oaxaca, Mexico: Chiles. We find mountains of them fresh, molehills dried, cones of chile paste, mounds of mole—rojo, amarillo, negro, coloradito—heaped like papier-mâché volcanoes, the kind of lava you want to sauce your enchiladas with. Old thimble-women elbow us aside; old men slice into our jugulars with their soft hat brims. The market is a mosh pit of commerce, indoors and out, sunlight and lamplight catching silver barrettes, turquoise rings, onyx pressed into sandal leather. Louisa and I try to ride the waves, but we’ve lost our ability to navigate this place, overwhelmed by light and sound and spice.
Blenders saw the wind in two, the viscera of the weather spilling to the floor of the Mercato de Benito Juarez as dust, wood shavings, vegetable seeds, fruit peels, blood. Six-year-old girls, wielding machetes taller than they are, scrape nopales needles to the asphalt, their arms sundried, air-dried, beef-jerkified. Horseflies cling to the fat strings of purple meat at a butcher’s booth, knocked away by a block-shouldered young man—the flat of his hand, the flat of his knife. The flies re-land on the yellow feet of a hooked chicken, its dead head reaching like a hatchling arrow for the earth. Two young girls companionably puree fruits and vegetables for liquidos and aguas frescas—avocado-coconut, prickly pear-guava, cucumber-pasilla-crabapple. The rank ice rattles in the plastic cups like time’s horse-driven wagon, simultaneously powerful and slow and pioneering.
A top-heavy old woman limps along the aisles, a bowling ball knocking patrons out of her path. She drags her left foot behind her like a slug, carries a paper bag in her right hand, on which three of five fingernails have given in to black fungus. In her left hand, whose fingernails are so oddly perfect they seem to have been manicured this morning, she rattles what can’t be more than three coins. Louisa knows I have been looking for this woman and her wares—or any old woman with a clubfoot, really, peddling what she has to peddle. In her bag, chapulines—comal-toasted, salt-lime seasoned grasshoppers—cross their stiff antennae, fold their stick-legs in prayer. Dead, they most surely live on as an important food source in Oaxaca and, today, to me.
Louisa and I are here, searching for anything new—new to feel, new to taste—a handful of months after living for a year in my parents’ suburban Chicago house. I had moved back for the first time since I was 17, with my wife of five years in tow, to help my family through my mother’s battle with cancer. We are here to recover our marriage, our sanctuary, in this place that forces all memories of parental mortality to the backs of our brains. This old woman with her paper bag seems to be offering us the directions—a shortcut via the ingestion of grasshoppers—to our center as “married couple in love.” I have my doubts that Louisa bestows much significance on these dead bugs, but I can’t help but feel these grasshoppers must be important. Essential. These grasshoppers have long been able to sustain.
Chapulines have been devoured in Oaxaca since long before the Spanish conquistadors stretched their imperialist legs here. Typically, they are gleaned from the leafy portions of corn and alfalfa fields. The grasshoppers serve as a plentiful and inexpensive protein source for Oaxaca families, both urban and rural, and as an important economic fulcrum at many of the local markets, igniting healthy, buggy competition. Many of Oaxaca’s rural families make extra money, peddling their crop to local restaurants (which incorporate them into a variety of complicated dishes), selling them through middleman market vendors or even preparing the chapulines for export.
In Oaxaca’s terroir, as important to the chapulines as the Bordeaux region is to Cabernet Sauvignon, these tiny beasts thrive, have longer life spans and higher reproductive rates than any other grasshopper in the world. These super-grasshoppers, with their strong sex drives, uncross their limbs, yield to the human touch. And touch we humans do, harvesting these insectile bon vivants from the downy rains of late spring to early winter. The infants, called nymphs, are prized for their sweet alfalfa flavor, and their price is correspondingly lofty. As they age, the grasshoppers migrate from the shady chill of the alfalfa farms to the more exposed maize fields, basking in the sun like daiquiri’d socialites, the corn lending their fatty interiors a light, but not unpleasant, astringency—or so I’ve read.
I pull the lightest, thinnest coin from my pocket and hand it to the woman, who retrieves a cleaned, label-less tuna can from the waist folds of her pink dress. She scoops out a large plastic bag full of the coral-colored chapulines for me. In my poor Spanish, I ask her if she harvested them herself.
She rolls her eyes, her entire head really, her neck billowing with too much skin, and answers with a tired “Si.” Beneath it, I hear, “Of course, asshole, who do you think harvested these for me, my maid?” Her voice sputters like an old boat engine struggling to catch, dragging its own foot behind as it presses from her mouth. Louisa, wrinkling her nose at the sheer amount of grasshoppers I have purchased with the thin coin, pushes the bag back to my chest when I offer it to her. The top-heavy woman, much to my surprise, is willing to engage us further. She tells us, the dismissiveness trickling from her voice, her foot finally catching up, that she harvested the grasshoppers with a net and a cardboard box from the fields early, a few mornings ago, when it was still cool outside and the grasshoppers were still waking their muscles from a night of assured grasshopper debauchery, moving hungover and slow, libertine and sybaritic. Delicious sins, no doubt.
Before I bite into the first, my first, a taste barrier about to be broken, another step forward in a gustatory life, she tells me she sets the cardboard box in a cool portion of her house and starves the grasshoppers for two days, so there isn’t any waste left in their bodies.
“La caca?” I ask. I hope she will laugh, but she doesn’t. I merely inspire another eye-roll and immediately regret my stupid joke.
She tells us this step is what makes her chapulines taste better than those of other more “corporate” harvesters. They sell more product, but of a lower quality, and have to mask the flavor of the residual cacawith extra spices like chile powder. To rinse her crop, she boils the beasts in a garlic lime water, then toasts them on the comal and seasons them with salt and a little more lime juice. She tells us that today, like every other day of the week, she will drag herself through the market aisles for 10 hours or more, returning at intervals to an unseen station, where her mother sits fixed behind a grasshopper massif, to refill her paper bag. I can’t help but wonder what her mother looks like and picture a tangle of saltwater taffy perpetually being stretched, grasshoppers in white aprons hopping beneath her, licking at the seeping sugars. I hold this picture in my head—taffy, taffy, neurotic taffy—as I reach into the bag; choose a large, sharp grasshopper, greasy in my fingers; and, with the ancient daughter of this mystery mother watching, with my wife taking one giant step away toward fruits and vegetables and anything more familiar, raise it to my mouth.